Some people consider Howard Stern a guilty pleasure. I'm not one of them. I don't slink around listening to Stern's Sirius/XM radio show on headphones while stifling a snigger at the latest porn star to fake a titanic moment of ecstasy while riding his in-studio Sybian.
In my mind, Stern is one of the best (if not the best) interviewer and radio entertainer of his generation. Which is why I was so excited when he announced on Thursday (December 9) that he would be re-upping for another five years with Sirius/XM. I've been listening to Stern for years, well before he made the jump from terrestrial to satellite, but 30 years into his career I've been feeling lately that he's hitting an all-time stride.
And while many in the media wrote him off when he took his $500 million ball and went to the then (and let's face it, still) struggling Sirius satellite network five years ago amid claims that he was going to revolutionize radio, I've heard the proof. Stern on terrestrial radio was funny, edgy and often patently offensive. In an age before stars were sharing their every vapid thought on Twitter and Facebook, Stern was always an open book, believing in his mantra that anything worth saying or doing is worth saying or doing on the air. "Save it for the air!" he likes to say.
Though many casual fans lost track of him as he receded from the front pages following the switch, I dug in deeper, reveling in the insanely detailed year-end documentary series "The History of Howard Stern," marveling at the hubris of a man willing to toot his own horn so elaborately and seriously during his own lifetime.
Who does that? Nobody. And that's what makes Stern so great. Over the past year, David Letterman was caught in an intern scandal and Jay Leno's Machiavellian nature was laid bare once again in the Conan O'Brien coup. But what do we really know about the internal lives of these late night giants? Next to nothing. They expect their guests to share, but they are unwilling to provide any insight at all into what makes them tick.
Stern, however, literally shares everything, from his bathroom neuroses and secret sexual fantasies to his preferred lovemaking techniques, the lingering psychic scars from his life in an all-black neighborhood and everything in between. And that's just in one recent show.
Stern doesn't make the news he used to, but if you haven't been listening, you've missed some truly amazing radio. I'll go out on a limb and say that he's on a par with Dick Cavett, Charlie Rose and David Frost as one of the best interviewers ever. From his fan boy dive into friend Billy Joel's musical process to the dissection of David Arquette's failing marriage and an unbelievably NSFW interview last week with Wilson Phillips that surely made their label bosses at Sony question booking the trio on the show to hawk their Christmas CD, Stern draws things out of his guests that no other interviewer ever could (or would).
Yes, it's often indulgent and frequently comes back around to being about him and his issues. But years of intensive therapy have made Stern deeply interested in what makes people tick, and that fascination blows up the boundaries between interviewer and subject in a way that is endlessly entertaining, provocative and boundary-crossing.
The other thing that frequent listeners will tell you is that despite his NC-17 content, Stern's show is all about family. Not the kind of family you see on a prime time sitcom, of course, but an extended family of weirdos, bizarre co-workers, hangers on and "wack packers" whose lives fans become invested in. Whether it's Jeff the Drunk begging for money or Eric the Midget pulling another one of his obnoxious shenanigans, Richard Christie talking about his squirrel-eating dad or Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate getting mercilessly teased for his endless book tour and pathetic baseball skills, you feel like you know these people and can’t wait to hear about their latest escapades. Howard knows this and it's why he always takes their calls, summons them into the studio and gives them more airtime than you would ever imagine.
It's his world, but he's always propping the door open for you to come in and indulge him as he spends an hour complaining about the fake "Iron Man" tchotchke he got from director Jon Favreau or firing up the screeching bird sound for the 1,000th time to take a call from Maryanne from Brooklyn. I've never met any of these people, but I feel like I know them.
You may have lost track of Stern in the intervening years, but now is your chance to catch up and hear what you've been missing. You won't regret it.